Feminism broadly refers to a series of Western movements and ideas that have advocated for women’s rights, based on the idea that the sexes should be treated equally. While numerous such movements have existed around the world at various times, feminism refers to a series of Western movements that have appeared since the late nineteenth century.
It’s worth considering what a political “movement” actually is: I would define it as a grouping of people who have come together to achieve an agreed set of goals. The more tightly defined the goals, the more coherent (and successful) the movement is likely to be. However, any such movement is likely to be short-lived. Once it has achieved its declared goals, its reasons for existence come into question. Movements that have succeeded tend to go into rapid decline - after all, what is the purpose of fighting for something that has already been achieved? The remnants of such movements tend to splinter and turn on themselves, dividing into warring, cult-like factions, each one determined that it alone is the true inheritor of the movement’s great heritage. Over time, the movement may retain its name and its old slogans, but eventually bears little resemblance to the original movement.
Any movement that lasts long enough is doomed to this fate. From Christianity to Socialism, once-great movements have fragmented and evolved into cults with little apparent memory of their roots. Feminism also appears to have followed this path. There have arguably been two coherent feminist movements: the First Wave (in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) was built around voting and inheritance rights for women, and the Second Wave, of the 1960s and 70s, around sex, fertility and marriage.
Once universal suffrage was won following WWI, the feminist movement lost its single, uniting goal, and went into decline. In the same way, the Second Wave had achieved most of its core demands in America by the mid-1970s: equal divorce rights, access to contraception, and - the defining issue - the right to abortion. Arguably, the Second Wave Feminist movement was in terminal decline by the mid-1970s, although with abortion rights under regular attack from the religious right, abortion requires continuous defence.
As with all great movements, the two great feminist movements were of their time. The women’s right to vote was really an extension of earlier right-to-vote movements. In Britain, the Chartists had fought for, and won, the extension of voting rights to include all men over 21. In America, First Wave feminism was born after black men won the right to vote, in 1870; and in fact was often deeply racist in nature, driven by the outrage of well-heeled white women that black men had more rights than they did. Second Wave feminism formed a part of a broader, liberal movement for equal rights that characterised the 1960s.
Once Second Wave feminism had won its key demands, the movement lost its broad popular support and fell back into the hands of activists and academics. Now lacking major political goals, feminists turned their attention to cultural issues instead, and so they inevitably split and went to war with each other.
Sex had always been a tricky subject for Second Wavers. Now with little else to distract them, feminist "Sex Wars" consumed the movement, dividing it into two tribes: “sex positive” feminists versus “anti-porn” feminists. The latter are often referred to more accurately as sex-negative or anti-sex by their enemies, since they tend to oppose all forms of sexual expression as well as legal prostitution.
The Third Wave was officially declared open in the early 1990s, but this apparently represented a generational shift more than it did the birth of a new movement. In tune with the lighter, more libertine attitudes of the 90s, the new feminists distanced themselves from their Second Wave mothers by embracing femininity and sexual freedom along with female empowerment. While 1960s feminist had burned their bras, 1990s ones were more likely to be maximising their cleavages with the newly invented Wonderbra. Perhaps no single brand represented the arrival of Third Wave feminism better than the Spice Girls, who were sexy, individualistic, and proclaimed their "Girl Power".
In practise though, the "Sex Wars" continued and intensified among the Third Wavers, and feminism increasingly became a label of identity for white, university-educated women rather than any statement of belief. While feminism is generally viewed as a broadly progressive movement, it has just as often been conservative and illiberal - modern feminists choose to forget the darker moment of feminist history. In fact, at all points in its history, feminism has included an incredibly diverse and often contradictory set of beliefs, and this is truer today than ever before. While the First Wave is remembered for winning the vote, we tend to forget the militaristic White Feather movement, which shamed British men into joining the army during WWI. To those feminists, equality was a deeply undesirable thing: men were expected to fight (and die) like men, not stay home like cowards or women.
Lacking any clear political demands, Third Wave feminists increasingly focused on issues - especially sexual violence - that affected women more than men. However, it became increasingly unclear whether feminism offered any solutions to this problem. To add to the movement’s woes, sexual violence went into steep decline in Europe and America from the 80s to the 2000s. While feminists doubtless wanted to claim credit for this decline, in reality, it appeared to be the result of increased sexual openness, and especially seems to have resulted from the easy access to pornography offered by the internet, which many feminists have problems with. Even “sex-positive, pro-porn” feminists tend to suggest that there are “good” and “bad” types of pornography. And yet the evidence has increasingly suggested that simply giving young men access to pornography, of any type, reduces their tendencies towards sexual violence.
In recent times, feminism (which might still be Third Wave, or may have progressed to a Fourth or even Fifth Wave, depending who you talk to) has tended to become increasingly authoritarian. Even those liberal feminists that support the existence of strip clubs and pornography have succumbed to pro-censorship agendas, based on the crude notion that “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture” are spreading thanks to “online misogyny” on social media (I cover this trend in my book, Porn Panic!). The outcome of all this “feminist theorising” is that free speech has become increasingly “problematic” to many feminists. Feminism has thus become a powerful force for censorship: free speech is all very well - argue many on the new left - but not if it results in harm to women. Leading feminist campaigners like Anita Sarkeesian openly call for policing of internet speech in order to protect women. Sarkeesian now sits on Twitter’s McCarthyite "Trust and Safety Council" to advise just how far free speech can go before it starts hurting (nice, middle-class) women.
So again, just as with the White Feather Girls, feminism is veering back towards traditional conservatism. Men may be able to cope with rough language online, but women are seen to be more delicate, and many feminists now call on the state and on corporations to protect them. The sad trend towards “safe spaces” in universities mirrors this, suggesting that women are simply not capable of coping unprotected in the big, bad world. And so today’s feminists are a long way from the Second Wavers who insisted that women were tough and capable of handling anything a man could. They’re also a long way from 90s Girl Power; the prevailing feminist message is that women need paternalistic protection. This conservatism is rising rather than falling, with many feminists now demanding that misogyny should be covered by hate speech laws. Feminism has gone full circle from its equality days and appears to be embracing a Victorian style world in which women need chaperones (even if the chaperones are now the police force or Facebook’s censorship teams).
The pinnacle of today’s "Whatever Wave feminism" is the #MeToo movement. Initially, this began as an opportunity for women to talk openly about their experiences of sexual abuse. But rapidly - within hours, in fact - it became a virtual lynch mob, in which social media became judge, jury and executioner against large numbers of men, merely on the basis of accusations without evidence. Suicides have inevitably followed. Just as Anita Sarkeesian and other feminists of the new era have suggested that free speech is harmful to women, so now due process and the right to a fair trial are also considered harmful to women.
Feminism can claim some great historic victories, culminating in the legalisation of abortion in America in 1973. But it is hard to find much of cultural or political value in the feminisms that have come since then. On the contrary, today’s feminism appears to be a force that is helping to erode rather than protect liberal values in this increasingly illiberal era.